The Fence: A Police Cover-Up Along Boston's Racial Divide

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A riveting, true-life account of violence, racial injustice, and betrayal within the ranks of the Boston Police Department

The Boston police officers who brutally beat Michael Cox at a deserted fence one icy night in 1995 knew right away that they had made a terrible mistake. The badge and handgun under Cox's bloodied parka proved it: He was not a black gang member but a plainclothes officer who had been chasing the same murder suspect they ...

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A riveting, true-life account of violence, racial injustice, and betrayal within the ranks of the Boston Police Department

The Boston police officers who brutally beat Michael Cox at a deserted fence one icy night in 1995 knew right away that they had made a terrible mistake. The badge and handgun under Cox's bloodied parka proved it: He was not a black gang member but a plainclothes officer who had been chasing the same murder suspect they were.

While Cox was being beaten, Officer Kenny Conley chased down and captured the suspect. Afterward, as Cox waited for an apology from his department, federal prosecutors accused Conley of lying when he denied witnessing Cox's beating. Both Cox and Conley grew up in Boston and had dedicated their lives to serving the Boston Police Department, but when they needed its support, they were abandoned.

A remarkable work of investigative journalism, The Fence details the shocking story of the attack, the attempted cover-up by police officers beholden to a "blue wall of silence," and the bitter repercussions on the lives of those involved. It follows Cox's 1998 federal civil rights trial against the Boston Police Department and features a diverse cast of characters, including the victims, their families, the officers accused in the beating, city officials, and the actual murder suspect—all set against the rich backdrop of Boston.

Like J. Anthony Lukas's 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Common Ground, The Fence examines Boston's race relations and the unwritten police code of covering up through the intimate lens of those who experienced the crime directly. By coming to know the officers and criminals brought together that night at the fence—and the families whose lives were changed forever as a result—we sense how deeply the strains of prejudice run in this city still haunted by tribalism and racial tension.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Mired in the racial conflicts of a divided city, Lehr, coauthor of the bestselling Black Mass, details one of the most controversial cases in the annals of the Boston Police Department, involving a brutal assault on a black plainclothes officer by his fellow cops and the resulting 1998 civil rights trial against the police force. Not only does Lehr paint the racial and political turbulence of Boston at the time, but he explores the cultural backgrounds of the black officer, Michael Cox; his attacker and fellow officer, Kenny Conley; and Robert "Smut" Brown, a drug dealer involved in the killing that started it all. Cox, who responded to the murder and chased after the car carrying the suspects, was beaten very severely by his overzealous colleagues, waited for an administrative apology and got only a coverup by the department. What followed was a sensational trial with all of the key ingredients of police brutality and a "solid blue code of silence," with no winners. Jolting, nightmarish and potent, this true cop yarn bests any bogus reality show or overblown tabloid tale with its hard-boiled spin. 8 pages of b&w photos; 1 map. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal

Far too often we hear about racial bias and undue violence on the part of a city's police department against the very citizens they are legally bound to protect. Here the Boston Police Department is taken to task. Lehr argues that the city of Boston itself has a well-established racial divide and that the police department reflects this partition. He tells the true story of an African American plainclothes police officer, Michael Cox, who was brutally beaten by his fellow officers in a case of mistaken identity. Subsequently, the beating was covered up by the police department, an example of the "Blue Law of Silence" wherein police officers remain silent about police matters that make the department look bad. Lehr provides an excellent review of the incident, the background of Officer Cox, the cover-up, and the ultimate trial. The result is an intriguing read that provides an admirable, in-depth description of police corruption.
—Tim Delaney

Kirkus Reviews
From former Boston Globe reporter Lehr (Journalism/Boston Univ.; co-author: Judgment Ridge: The Truth Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders, 2003, etc.), a somber tale of police corruption, racism and violent crime in Beantown. Think Serpico translated to Boston, where Mike Cox, a plainclothes police officer, and his partner were tracking criminals. One, the story's antihero, was a street thug known as "Smut," a 23-year-old with a lengthy police record. Their paths intersected with violent results at a hip-hop club on a January night in 1995. As Lehr notes, "plainclothes" isn't exactly right, for "it was unrealistic to think street-smart gang members would not spot them or their unmarked car." The gangbangers did better than certain of Cox's fellow officers in the Boston PD, who beat him senseless, apparently confusing him for a suspect. The cops, and others who arrived on the scene, concocted a tale: Cox "hit his head on the ice," they said, and they coached witnesses to say the same. None of the officers stepped up to tell the truth, erecting the well-known "blue wall of silence" that surrounds allegations of corruption and misconduct. Higher-ups in the BPD took a nonchalant approach to the case, "hoping the department's low-key response to the beating would result in a quick and quiet resolution that kept the matter largely in-house." To his great credit, Cox would not let it go. Having "realized long ago he could not depend on the police department for the truth," he embarked on a long legal odyssey for justice that resulted in victory-at least of a kind. A cautionary tale about the abuse of power and a timely civics lesson on the virtue of standing up to authority.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594073536
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/23/2009
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Dick Lehr

As a reporter for nearly two decades for the Boston Globe, Dick Lehr won numerous journalism awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of journalism at Boston University, he is coauthor of the Edgar Award-winning Black Mass, the Edgar Award finalist Judgment Ridge, and The Underboss. He lives near Boston with his wife and four children.

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Table of Contents

The Cast of Characters

Map of Boston

Prologue: January 25, 1995 1

Pt. 1 Two Cops and a Drug Dealer

1 Mike Cox 7

2 Robert "Smut" Brown 29

3 Kenny Conley 45

4 The Troubled Boston PD 64

5 Mike's Early Police Career 78

6 Closing Time at the Cortee's 93

7 The Murder and the Chase 102

8 The Dead End 123

Pt. 2 True Blue

9 "8-Boy" 139

10 No Official Complaint 158

11 Can I Talk to My Lawyer? 176

12 Dave, I Know You Know Something 197

13 Cox v. Boston Police Department 213

Pt. 3 Justice Denied, Then the Trial

14 The White Guy at the Fence 227

15 The Perjury Trap 248

16 A Federal Miscarriage of Justice 260

17 On His Own 272

18 The Trial 293

Epilogue 321

Acknowledgments 331

Author's Note on Sources 335

Notes 337

Appendix A Court Cases 361

Appendix B Books; Articles and Special Reports 363

Appendix C Boston Police Department Rules and Regulations; Boston Police Department Internal Investigations; Boston Police Department Labor Arbitration Proceedings; Suffolk County District Attorney's Office; United States Attorney's Office, District of Massachusetts 365

Index 369

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